A glass half full: UK milk consumption and trends: Bright Maize business manager Charlie Dolphin delves into the white stuff and gauges its importance and role to the modern consumer.

Milk has long been a staple in the British diet, forming a crucial part of daily nutrition. Understanding how milk consumption has evolved provides insight into broader dietary trends, economic shifts, and cultural changes within the UK. This article explores the history of milk consumption in the UK, examines current trends, and projects future patterns while considering the rising competition from plant-based alternatives.


Historical trends in milk consumption

Fifty years ago, milk was an ubiquitous presence in British households. In the post-war era, government initiatives promoted milk consumption to improve public health. Milk was often delivered directly to doorsteps, making it a convenient choice for families. During the 1970s and 80s, milk remained a dietary cornerstone, frequently consumed with meals and used in cooking.

The 1980s and 90s saw shifts influenced by economic changes and health trends. During economic downturns, consumers generally cut back on non-essential or premium dairy products, opting for cheaper alternatives. Milk, however, is relatively price-inelastic, meaning consumption remains fairly consistent despite price increases. Concerns about fat content led to the popularity of semi-skimmed and skimmed milk.

In the early 2000s, convenience foods and beverages began to dominate the market. Milk consumption started to decline as people sought quicker meal options and alternative beverages. This period marked the beginning of significant changes in the UK’s relationship with milk.


Milk today

In recent years, milk consumption has continued to evolve, and liquid milk sales have steadily declined. Health consciousness has driven consumers to seek lower-fat and lower-calorie options, sometimes bypassing traditional milk for alternatives perceived as healthier. Environmental concerns also play a role, with consumers considering the carbon footprint and sustainability of dairy farming.

The increasing availability and variety of milk alternatives offer consumers more choices. This diversification in the market reflects changing preferences and a broader shift towards more sustainable and health-conscious diets.


Going organic

Organic milk can offer a viable solution for some UK dairy farmers. By transitioning to organic farming, farmers can provide perceived higher welfare standards, ensuring cows graze on pasture and are not exposed to synthetic hormones or antibiotics. This practice aligns with those consumers seeking ethically produced dairy, meeting a growing preference for what some see as healthier, natural products. This shift can help farmers command higher prices.


The rise of plant-based alternatives

One of the most significant trends in the beverage market is the rise of plant-based milk alternatives. Oat milk, almond milk, soy milk, and other varieties have seen substantial growth in popularity. These alternatives appeal to various consumer groups, including those with lactose intolerance, vegans, and individuals seeking to reduce their environmental impact.

Younger demographics, particularly Millennials and Gen Z, are more inclined to try and adopt plant-based products. The growing awareness of dietary diversity and the health benefits of plant-based diets contribute to the rising demand. In the UK, sales of oat milk have surged, driven by its perceived health benefits and lower environmental footprint compared to dairy milk. Almond and soy milks also maintain strong market positions, supported by extensive marketing and product innovation.


Challenges of the alternative milk market

Despite the growing market share of alternative milks, consumers might also be apprehensive about switching from dairy. One major concern is taste and texture; some find these products less palatable than traditional cow’s milk. Additionally, there are nutritional concerns; while almond milk is often lower in calories, it may lack essential nutrients like protein and calcium unless fortified.

The production of almond milk involves several steps, including soaking, grinding, and straining almonds to create a liquid. This process often involves the addition of stabilisers, emulsifiers, and sweeteners to improve taste and consistency, which can make consumers wary of the product’s naturalness. The cost is another factor, as alternative milks can be more expensive.

Furthermore, almond milk production has significant environmental implications. Almond farming requires large amounts of water, with a single almond needing about 5 litres of water to grow. This is particularly concerning in drought-prone areas like California, where the majority of the world’s almonds are produced. Additionally, the transportation of almonds and almond milk contributes to carbon emissions. These environmental issues make some consumers hesitant to choose almond milk over more sustainable alternatives, however, almond farming produces lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to dairy farming because it does not involve methane-producing livestock.

When comparing almond milk to oat milk in terms of sustainability, oat milk emerges as the more environmentally friendly option, although only marginally. Oat milk demands less water and is typically grown in cooler climates with fewer pesticides. Moreover, oats are often grown in crop rotations, promoting soil health.


The future milk and dairy landscape

Looking ahead, liquid milk consumption in the UK is expected to continue its gradual decline. Projections suggest that the trend towards plant-based alternatives will persist, driven by ongoing health and environmental concerns. Innovations in the dairy industry, such as lactose-free and fortified milk options, may help mitigate this decline by catering to specific dietary needs.

The future landscape of milk consumption will likely see a balance between traditional dairy products and alternatives. As consumers become more discerning, the demand for transparency in sourcing and production methods will increase. Dairy producers may need to adopt more sustainable practices to maintain their market share.

While liquid milk sales are declining, the overall dairy market remains robust. Products like yoghurt, butter, and cheese continue to enjoy strong demand. Yoghurt, in particular, has benefited from health trends, with high-protein and probiotic varieties gaining popularity. Butter sales have also seen a resurgence, driven by the move away from margarine and processed spreads.

Cheese remains a staple in the British diet, with a wide variety of domestic and imported cheeses available. The versatility of cheese in cooking and snacking ensures its continued relevance. However, the impact of changing milk consumption patterns on the broader dairy market cannot be overlooked. Producers are diversifying their product lines to include innovative offerings that cater to modern consumer preferences.



The evolution of milk consumption in the UK reflects broader dietary and cultural shifts. From its post-war prominence to the current decline in favour of plant-based alternatives, milk’s journey mirrors changes in health consciousness, environmental awareness, and consumer preferences. While traditional milk faces challenges, the overall dairy market continues to thrive through diversification and innovation. As we look to the future, the balance between dairy and alternatives will shape the landscape of milk consumption in the UK, highlighting the dynamic nature of this essential food category.



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